Cooking her way back to health

Jessica Fechtor was 28 and leading a wonderful life, married to a smart and charming man she met in college, living in Cambrige, Mass., on her way to earning a Ph.D. at Harvard.

Then, with no warning, an aneurysm burst in her brain as she worked out on a treadmill while she was at a conference in Vermont.

Fechtor has just published a wonderful book, Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me HomeDescribed as a memoir with recipes. it details her remarkable journey back to health, through the initial neurosurgery to repair the aneurysm, another surgery to battle a raging infection, a horrible reaction to medication and a long rehabilitation.

For 10 months, she lived without a piece of her skull, which had to be removed because of infection. The hockey helmet she wore for protection only partly hid the deformity. She lost the sight in one eye and her sense of smell (which happily she regained). Then she underwent a final surgery to repair a golf-ball-sized dent in her temple.

Learning to be a good guest

Jessica always loved to cook, but when she came home from the worst of her hospitalizations, she had to relinquish that pleasure to her friends and learn how to be a good guest in her own home.

“A good guest, we think, is an easy guest. A considerate one. She arrives on time with a bottle of wine or maybe a gift, some chocolate or homemade jam. She asks what she can do. She wants to help. She insists.

“What these best of intentions miss is the most basic thing of all: that a good guest allows herself to be hosted. That means saying, ‘yes, please,’ when your’re offered a cup of tea, instead of rushing to get it yourself. It means staying in your chair, enjoying good company and your first glass of wine while your host ladles soup into bowls. If your host wants to dress the salad herself and toss it the way she knows how, let her, because a host is delighted to serve. To allow her to take care of you is to allow your host her generosity. I’d always been too distracted by my own desire to be useful to understand this. I got it now.”

The early part of Jessica’s book alternates between chapters about her health crisis and recovery and chapters about how she met and married her husband, Eli. Later chapters describe her long rehabilitation. Each chapter concludes with a description of dish that is meaningful to her, along with a nice recipe. There’s baked ziti, kale and pomegranate salad, almond macaroons, apple pie, buttermilk biscuits, cherry clafoutis and more.

A food blog as therapy

As Jessica grew stronger after her first surgeries, she became restless. Not quite ready to return to her graduate studies in Jewish literature, she took the advice of a friend and started a food blog. She called it Sweet Amandine after her favorite almond cake. But in order to write about cooking, she had to cook.

“The kitchen became my arena for testing myself physically. I’d page through my cookbooks and stack of rumpled recipes in search of ones that felt safe….When the making and the eating were done, I’d sit down and write. Often, after a few minutes of staring at the screen, my eyes would begin to ache and my neck would tighten with nausea. I’d wish I could unscrew my head, so heavy and big, and just lay it down beside me for a while. Every few sentences of so, I would take a break. Sometimes, I would move to the sofa and close my eyes, string together the words for the next line in my mind, then make my way back to my desk and write some more. It might sound painfully slow, this limping, bit-by-bit way of writing, but as phrases became sentences became paragraphs, I felt like I was flying.”

Her anecdotes and reflections about food were ones she’d been sharing with friends and family for years, in letters or over the dinner table. Cooking, and writing about cooking, helped her begin to feel normal again.

“That cooking shifted my attention away from myself was a tremendous relief. In the kitchen, I got to care again about the small stuff that’s not supposed to get to you, but does when you’re normal and well. Now, when the biscuits burned, it was my privilege to care. The twinge of annoyance as I whisked them from the oven was proof I was getting better.”

Jessica and Eli now have two young daughters and live in San Francisco.

I found her story quite moving and look forward to trying some of her recipes, like this one for cream of asparagus soup. Jessica says the flavor improves after a night in the fridge, so make the soup in advance, and reheat it before adding the lemon juice.